The unparalleled benefits of satellite tag technology enable researchers to track movements of billfish across the world’s oceans. Real-time tracking currently allows constant insight into the migrations of sharks and turtles, and hopefully it will for billfish as well in the near future. Scientists aim to use this real-time data to analyze fish movements to and from spawning grounds or closed areas in hopes of impacting management decisions. However, rather than concentrating on the movements of individual fish, managers plan to use recent developments in satellite technology to monitor vessels and fishing activity directly to aid in fisheries enforcement.
We needn’t worry that satellites will track us or our boat during our next trip offshore. Instead, satellites should help reduce the growing trend of illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing in remote destinations where countries lack the means to enforce fisheries in their own waters as well as the fishing taking place on the high seas, where enforcement remains nearly impossible. Often called “pirate fishing,” IUU fishing has become a concern not only here in the United States for several reasons, but it has also developed into an international problem drawing the attention of countries and regional fisheries management organizations (RFMOs).
The Presidential Task Force on Combatting Illegal, Unreported, and Unregulated Fishing and Seafood Fraud, co-chaired by the departments of State and Commerce, recently released 15 recommendations to the president for a comprehensive framework to address both IUU fishing and the overwhelming problem of seafood fraud regarding domestic seafood and imports. “Seafood is one of the most traded commodities in the world,” said Catherine Novelli, Under Secretary of State for Economic Growth, Energy, and the Environment. “The task force submitted strong recommendations to President Obama designed to stop the trade of illegal fish and promote the sale of sustainable seafood. IUU fishers gain an unfair advantage in the marketplace over law-abiding fishing operations as they do not pay the cost of sustainable production.”
According to the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration, in 2013 U.S. commercial fishermen landed 9.9 billion pounds of finfish and shellfish worth $5.5 billion. Conversely, IUU fishing accounted for 11 to 26 million tons and caused an estimated global loss of $10 billion to $23 billion to the legitimate seafood industry. The large revenues spur illegal trafficking operations and undermine economic opportunities for U.S. fishermen and others engaged in legal fishing. Some experts estimate that one in five fish caught is landed illegally, and in some areas, as much as 40 percent of the total catch could be caught unlawfully.
“The U.S. fishing industry, which supports nearly one million American jobs, is threatened when illegal foreign operators undercut the U.S. market with cheaper, illegally caught imports,” said Karen Sack, director for International Oceans at the Pew Charitable Trusts. “The task force recommends measures to catch these operators when their vessels tie up at U.S. ports.” The Port State Measures Agreement (PSMA), a key component in curtailing illegal fishing, designates which ports foreign-flagged vessels may seek to enter. It also restricts port-of-entry access by vessels found to be involved in IUU fishing and placed on an IUU list by RFMOs. Pending authorization by Congress and the president’s signature as of early February, this agreement provides the legal avenues for the United States to do its part in restricting IUU vessels from unloading illegal fish into the market. An initiative by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, the PSMA more importantly creates an international agreement to battle IUU fishing.
Additional recommendations from the Presidential Task Force aim to level the playing field for legitimate fishermen as well as increase consumer confidence in the sustainability of seafood sold in the United States and abroad. Partnerships between international governments, the RFMOs and nongovernmental organizations seek to further the communication and information available about where and when IUU fishing occurs, as well as to track down and stop repeat offenders.
To help meet this challenge, the Pew Charitable Trusts partnered with Satellite Applications Catapult, a U.K. government initiative, to pioneer a system that merges satellite tracking and imagery data with fishing vessel databases and oceanographic data to monitor seas across the globe. The cutting-edge technology enables government officials and other analysts to identify and monitor unlawful activities in global waters, particularly IUU fishing.
The development, known as Project Eyes on the Seas, advances a long-term effort to dramatically reduce IUU fishing in developing countries and on the high seas. The theft of fisheries resources persists largely because industrial-scale operations function beyond the reach of law enforcement, and they get away with it simply by injecting the illegal fish into the global marketplace. To counter this, the new initiative will provide real-time comprehensive monitoring and analysis to track the activity of vessels fishing in a country’s waters or the fishing activity of a vessel prior to entering a country’s port to offload fish or provide service. The system analyzes multiple sources of live satellite tracking data, and it links with the information about a ship’s ownership history and country of registration. In doing so, it provides a comprehensive source of up-to-the-minute data to alert officials to suspicious vessel movements and fishing activity.
Project Eyes on the Seas will initially monitor the waters surrounding Easter Island, a Chilean territory, and the Pacific island nation of Palau. In 2014, Palau announced it will close all of its waters to commercial fishing, and it will lean heavily on the use of satellite technology to aid in enforcement. Both locations generally lack enforcement resources, and the new satellite technology aims to increase the effectiveness of the resources they do have. Over the next three years, Project Eyes on the Seas plans to grow in capability and scope as more countries and RFMOs commit to using its capabilities to monitor IUU fishing.
The lack of collaborative fisheries management during the last several decades, particularly on an international level, not only led to severe overfishing, it also exemplified the Tragedy of the Commons. Deterring this type of activity should continue to be a top priority in the United States and internationally, for the health of the resources as well as for global economic reasons. The recent collaboration among countries, RFMOs and nongovernmental organizations with the use of satellite technology provides a solid framework moving forward in the battle against IUU fishing. Curbing IUU fishing will not occur overnight, nor will it happen without challenges, but the goals remain clear, and we should all keep our eyes on them.